The Fuse

Keep the Car Running: Transportation Costs Hit Indie Musicians

by Matt Piotrowski | July 13, 2018

“The Rock and Roll Dream of 2006: To Make Enough to Pay for Gas,” said an MTV headline a little over a decade ago. The sub-header read: “Innovative solutions include traveling by goat, Greyhound bus—even bicycle.” That was just the beginning. In 2006, gasoline prices averaged $2.61 per gallon, more than double what they were in 1999, and yet touring musicians had seen nothing yet. Prices were 26 percent higher by 2008, and they averaged around $3.50 per gallon from 2011-14.

Since last decade, when international oil prices spiked in dramatic fashion and pump prices were the highest in more than a generation, businesses and households took major hits and higher fuel costs helped precipitate the Great Recession, which deepened due to the collapse of the housing market. At the same time, artists also suffered myriad setbacks as a result of rising fuel prices, particularly independent musicians whose livelihoods are made on the road.

Artists may suffer myriad setbacks as a result of rising fuel prices, particularly independent musicians whose livelihoods are made on the road.

Although the life of a rock star is thought to be a world of late-night (and early-morning) parties filled with hours of debauchery, in reality it is much more mundane. Musicians, particularly those not backed by corporate labels, struggle with everyday frustrations such as transportation and fuel costs, which can significantly affect and ultimately determine the trajectory of their careers. While some small independent bands, such as Arcade Fire or The National, make their way to international stardom and play in large arenas, most perform for just 50-1,000 people per night. There have been countless testimonials of bands breaking up due to hardships of touring and the associated costs.

While gasoline prices have not yet returned to record levels, they are taking a toll on musicians. Indie band Pomplamoose, for instance, shared their tour costs and the complications of earning a living as a professional musician in a Medium post back in 2014. “Being in an indie band is running a never-ending, rewarding, scary, low-margin small business,” wrote band member Jack Conte. With no financial support besides ticket and merchandise sales, Pomplamoose incurred almost $150,000 of costs on a 28-day tour, about $13,000 above their income. Gasoline, airline, and parking costs were roughly $12,000 during that time period, not the biggest cost of the tour, but enough for Conte to write: “Holy shit, parking a 42-foot van is expensive.”

Their story is not unique. “Big increases in gasoline prices that come out of nowhere have a particularly large negative effect on bands,” Brian McTear, Executive Director of non-profit Weathervane, which supports independent musicians, told me. His main example was Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and its aftermath, which caused prices to spike by 80 cents per gallon in just two days. McTear is based in Philadelphia and the lead singer of Bitter, Bitter Weeks, signed to the record label High Two (owned by the author’s brother). McTear, who mixed the first hit for the War on Drugs and recorded Sharon Van Etten’s Epic album, says that Philadelphia is an ideal city for up-and-coming artists because they can live in a comparatively cheap yet large market, build a fan base in New York City, and tour frequently on the populous East Coast.

In order to contend with high transportation costs, bands have to fit their tours into tight schedules.

In order to contend with high transportation costs, bands have to fit their tours into tight schedules. This can lead to a grueling road trips. For instance, during the upcoming U.S. tour for Canadian indie outfit Wolf Parade (one of the author’s favorite bands), they will be performing 11 shows in 13 days, crisscrossing the East Coast and the Midwest and playing mid-sized venues.

And Wolf Parade are one of the lucky ones. They are established and popular (Apologies to the Queen Mary received a 9.2 rating from Pitchfork in 2005) and have a dedicated fan base in multiple cities. Bands in their tier can travel to numerous markets and remain somewhat profitable—although most bands never become “rich,” per se. The increased price of gasoline, even as modest as $20-$30 to travel from city to city, can drain budgets for regional tours from Richmond to Boston, and has led bands and solo acts to cut down on more ambitious tours through the South, Midwest, or West Coast. Parking, a very dull and ordinary issue, is a big problem, too, no matter the size of the act. Large acts such as Lady Gaga or U2 include numerous trucks and buses on their tours to carry their stage gear from city to city, but they have the luxury to pay for space and services. Local musicians do not. In a recent Twitter thread, DC-based musician Ben Tufts of Fugazi-inspired FuzzQueen, railed against parking costs at the Wharf area, where various new clubs have sprung up, including the glitzy Anthem, which has hosted major acts such as Lorde, Beck, and Jack White.

Parking, a very dull and ordinary issue, is a big problem, too, no matter the size of the act.

Tufts, whose band plays the smaller venues in the area, wrote: “Affordable parking for local musicians performing at The Wharf is a serious issue that needs immediate attention.” He added: “Local bands don’t travel in tour buses and often have day jobs, so they can’t carpool. We have heavy equipment, so public transportation simply isn’t an option. If the band makes a hundred bucks, and each member has to pay $25 to park, they’re playing for free.”

Musicians aren’t of course the only city dwellers complaining about parking services, but their dilemma reflects the problems of bottlenecks and costs of urban transportation, and how fixes are desperately needed.

What a time to be alive—Apologies to Superchunk, Future, and Drake

While higher touring costs are a major—and ongoing—threat, now is a better time than ever to be a musician. “Music is something that far more people participate in than just 10 years ago,” McTear told me. “Throughout history, any painter could paint, any poet could write, but only now can any music artist record and perform.”

“Throughout history, any painter could paint, any poet could write, but only now can any music artist record and perform.”

The cost of production has dropped precipitously with growth in technology, for recording and distributing music. The explosion in the number of musicians has led to a genre diversity for fans, all of whom can stream through their phones, their workplace computers, or car stereos. Music is available to everyone, anywhere, and at any time. This obviously bodes well for current and future generations of musicians, though the economics of the industry and touring may take years or decades to significantly change.

The music world will only keep growing

Who knows what future transportation will look like years and decades from now, for musicians and the masses in general, but there are indeed hopeful signs. Don’t safe, efficient, autonomous, electric buses sound like an ideal solution for many of the issues bands face while touring?

Keep the car running.

It’s important that independent artists find support among their circles, and beyond, given the importance of music for not only fans but the entire culture itself. Music speaks to our souls and allows us to understand ourselves and those around us. We typically take it for granted because it’s always there. Those with something important to say must be able to express their voices, and not be held back by factors such as industry pressure—or gasoline prices. The dynamics of touring will always be taxing, no matter what the end rewards are. As Win Butler of Arcade Fire sings, the traveling never really stops, and the car has to keep running. “They know my name cause I told it to them/But they don’t know where/They don’t know when, it’s coming/Oh when, is it coming, keep the car running.”

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